March 15, 2019

The Back Page: Saving the Night Sky

Jonathan P. Scoll

Around 4:30 a.m. on January 17, 1994, Los Angeles residents were jolted awake by the 6.7-magnitude Northridge earthquake. With the power grid down, 911 calls streamed in, reporting a strange silvery cloud that frightened callers had never seen before in the night sky. It was the Milky Way.

About 83 percent of the world’s population and more than 99 percent of the U.S. and European populations live under light-polluted skies. Due to light pollution, the Milky Way is not visible to more than one third of humanity, including 60 percent of Europeans and nearly 80 percent of North Americans. Eighty-eight percent of the land mass of Europe, and almost half that of the United States experiences light-polluted nights. Fabio Falchi et al., The New World Atlas of Artificial Night Sky Brightness, 2 Science Advances, No. 6, e1600377 (June 10, 2016), available at http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/2/6/e1600377.full.

Pollution by artificial light at night (ALAN) has more serious implications than just the obscuring of the heavens. Mounting scientific evidence indicates that it has negative, even deadly, effects on the biological rhythms and life cycles of many creatures including amphibians, birds, mammals, insects, and plants. See, e.g., Benjamin M. Van Doren, et al., High-Intensity Urban Light Installation Dramatically Alters Nocturnal Bird Migration, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Oct. 2, 2017, available at http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2017/09/26/1708574114; Eva Knop, et al., Artificial Light at Night as a New Threat to Pollination, 548 Nature 206–09 (August 2017), available at www.nature.com/articles/nature23288.

According to the National Park Service, an estimated 30 percent of all outdoor lighting in the United States alone is wasted to the atmosphere, mostly by lights that aren’t shielded. www.nps.gov/grca/learn/nature/night-skies.htm. And ALAN is growing worldwide, Christopher C. M. Kyba, et al., Artificially Lit Surface of Earth at Night Increasing in Radiance and Extent, 3 Science Advances, No. 11, e1701528 (Nov. 22, 2017), available at http://advances.sciencemag.org/content/3/11/e1701528.full. The International Dark-Sky Association (IDA), a nonprofit organization headquartered in Tucson, Arizona, www.darksky.org, is working to combat this trend through public outreach on light pollution by, for example, promotion of standards and designs to direct light where it is needed and not skyward. Its goal is not to curtail appropriate nighttime lighting, just to use it more wisely. As IDA Executive Director Scott Feierabend told me, his organization is called the International Dark-Sky Association, not the International Dark-Ground Association.

Unlike air, water, or noise pollution, light pollution has few antecedents in the common law of nuisance, from which modern environmental law evolved, and it receives little explicit statutory or regulatory consideration. Starlight is an even heavier lift as a protectable environmental value. Iris Zhou, a student member of Harvard Law School’s Environmental Law and Policy Clinic, has surveyed lighting-related litigation for the IDA. Her memorandum, Harvard Law School Student Studies Light Pollution Case for IDA, available at http://darksky.org/harvard-law-school-student-studies-light-pollution-case-law-for-ida/, analyzes over 100 reported cases; only three have even touched on the quality of the night sky as a factor in litigation, and in none has it been decisive.

But new legal strategies may be on the horizon. In a conversation, Ms. Zhou told me the IDA succeeded in having the 2016 Monument Declarations for Bears Ears in Utah and Katahdin Woods and Waters in Maine include language celebrating how, against an absolutely black night sky, our galaxy and others more distant are visible. Such statements could be a basis for challenge to agency action that impairs darkness. She also mentioned the Endangered Species Act and the federal Migratory Bird Treaty Act as possible statutory handles.

The issue is gaining traction. IDA now has 63 chapters around the world, including more than 20 international chapters representing five continents. In December 2017, IDA certified America’s first International Dark Sky Reserve, a 1,400-square-mile swath of central Idaho in the Sawtooth National Forest, so free from light pollution that interstellar dust clouds can be seen in the Milky Way.

IDA’s Feierabend attributes this new activism to several factors including growing realization of the impact of artificial light on the human and animal world and its injury to optical astronomy, amateur and professional. But just as important, Feierabend said, is recognition of the deep role of the diurnal appearance of the stars in mankind’s spiritual heritage.

“The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showeth his handiwork,” wrote the ancient author of Psalm 19, looking into a soundless desert night. To be lost, however briefly, in such vastness of time and scale, is to take part, if only for that moment, in what the Catholic theologian Thomas Berry, C.P., once termed the essential human “conversation with the natural world.” It is a conversation increasing numbers of people want to join.

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Jonathan P. Scoll

Mr. Scoll is a member of the editorial board of Natural Resources & Environment. He may be reached at jonscoll@gmail.com.